By Clay Ward
This is it: Eastern Kentucky’s (6-2, 6-0 OVC) pivotal game to guarantee entrance into the playoffs and secure a share of the OVC championship. Austin Peay (6-3, 4-2) isn’t immune to this week’s importance, staying in the OVC chase with a win this week. This week’s polls rank Eastern 13th nationally in Division I Football Championship Series.
Austin Peay finished last week with a win against Southeast Missouri State (2-7, 0-6), while the Colonels have had time to rest up with a bye last week.
“I think (the bye week) came at a great time. The student athlete pulls some very long workdays. A 12-hour day is a short day to them,” Eastern Head Coach Danny Hope said.
Eastern is well rested and harbors a winning streak, but those are not the only weapons the Austin Peay team has stacked against it. History does not favor the Governors in this match-up; the Colonels lead 36-3 all time.
Rushing is the name of the game to both teams.
Eastern’s rush offense, led by seniors Bobby Washington and Mark Dunn, totals the most in the OVC, averaging 216.7 yards per game.
They were backed up by sophomore C.J. Walker, who proved his worth earlier in the season against Tennessee State by totaling 138 yards filling in for an injured Dunn.
Dunn came back against Murray State (2-7, 1-5) last week carrying the ball 112 yards, averaging a staggering 22.4 yards per carry. That means it took Dunn just five carries to break 100 yards.
Washington not only set an OVC record with a 99-yard run (tied with eight others in FCS history) against Murray State, but set a season-high mark of 190 yards and totaled four +100-yard games this season.
“It’s good blocking for Bobby, but we have so many great running backs. it’s great to block for anyone really because they can all make a play whenever they want,” said Eastern red-shirted freshman guard Chris Krack.
Though Eastern’s running backs have put up great numbers this season, none have tallied more yards than Austin Peay’s senior running back Chris Fletcher.
Fletcher ended last season with 1,401 yards, and this season has already broken the +1000 yard mark at 1,160 yards, currently topping rush leaders in the OVC.
“He’s a great football player. He’s hard to tackle, he reads, he blocks well, he has great vision, he has good speed, he’s a physical player, a very durable player and certainly one of the top players in our league,” Hope said.
With seven +100 yard games so far, it’s no secret why he averages 23.6 rushes a game. The Governors average 176.2 yards per game as a unit.
Eastern’s total defense is second to last in the OVC allowing 428.2 yards per game.
This mostly is to blame on the pass defense, beating out only Austin Peay, as the Governors take last pass defense in the conference.
How does Eastern keep winning games while giving up so many yards on defense when it leads all Division I football in turnover margin at +20?
It’s thanks in a big part to senior cornerback Derrick Huff, who collected three interceptions during Eastern’s last game at Murray State. Not only was he OVC defensive player of the week, but he also captured National Player of the Week honors by the Sports Network.
Huff currently is tied for the most interceptions in Division I with eight.
But Austin Peay lacks one weapon that Eastern possesses: a quarterback who can be counted on to throw it up if the running game is shut down.
Junior Alan Holland has thrown for more than 1,500 yards this season with only two interceptions.
Holland recently ended a streak against Murray with 201 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, which captures an Eastern record passing the old record of 174.
Austin Peay senior quarterback Mark Cunningham has thrown for fewer than half Holland’s yards on the season. He has thrown for less than 100 yards, or not played at all, in the last five games and has thrown one more interception than Holland.
With the exception of differences in quarterbacks, both Eastern and Austin Peay share more than just the running game.
Eastern played a close first half to Murray State and then jumped ahead in the second half only to allow Murray to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter, finishing the game 46-35.
Austin Peay struggled in a double overtime game against a bottom-of-the-barrel OVC team: Southeast Missouri State.
So both teams struggled in games they were expected to dominate. Could this be a wake-up call to teams in the conference?
A lot is on the line in the OVC this week as Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois face off. Both have been defeated by Eastern, but the winner stays in the running for the OVC championship.
“This is a great opportunity for us… Until we get ready and go down there to do what we need to do, we still have to have a level head and prepare for this game,” Eastern freshman defensive back Jaren Gooden said.